CEDAR RAPIDS — Love is in the air this month at Theatre Cedar Rapids, in the poetic splendor of “Shakespeare in Love.”
The play springing from the 1998 Oscar-winning film is unfolding in a rapturous feast for the eyes.
The actors, from servant to queen to canine, are wrapped in Elizabethan costumes more beautiful than any that have come before them on the local stage. The attention to detail is stunning, giving the actors plenty of reasons to strut and preen their way through scenes of triumph and tragedy, hilarity and humility.
Joni Sackett, the theater’s costume designer, has mined the closets from Riverside Theatre in Iowa City and Chicago Shakespeare Theatre designer Susan E. Mickey. And local designer Kathryn Huang has created a gown of sparkling glory for Queen Elizabeth I, with a jewel-bedecked wig by Sarah Fried.
The actors’ playground is scenery beyond compare by S. Benjamin Farrar, who also created the elegant environment for TCR’s “My Fair Lady” season opener. He has framed “Shakespeare” in a stunning array of dual balconies, plenty of open floor space for sword fights and fisticuffs expertly choreographed by K. Michael Moore, and a Moroccan archway with a translucent screen strewn with roses.
The piece de resistance is a turntable that worked flawlessly during Thursday’s final dress rehearsal, taking audience and actors through the show’s various settings, from bedchamber to boat to the London stage where the show’s play-within-a-play unleashes its own hilarity.
Lighting designer Chris Rich bathes each setting in an equally rich and complementary atmosphere.
Hailed as “the love story behind the greatest love story ever told,” the play imagines a young Will Shakespeare (John Miersen) battling writer’s block that slowly melts away as Viola (Lauren Galliart) melts his heart. She is his sun.
The scenario isn’t rooted in any real history from Shakespeare’s life, but it’s irresistible to envision, and director Angie Toomsen and company obviously are having fun.
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The flailing playwright is under the gun to produce a play, a comedy he has titled “Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter.” The queen (a regally, unusually subdued Marcia Hughes) enjoys a comedy, which must have a dog. TCR complies, with the delightful Pearl, a 5-year-old mixed breed playing Spot — which gives rise to a huge laugh when Scot Hughes in one of his various characters barks, “Out, damned Spot,” a quote ripped from the pages of “Macbeth.”
Other lines like that are sprinkled delightfully throughout the dialogue, as well as moments playing out in “real life,” which inspire the most memorable scenes from “Romeo and Juliet” later in the show.
The downside is that it’s sometimes hard to understand the actors who are speaking Shakespearean prose in various British accents. It takes a while to get the cadence in your ear, but even then, some rapid-fire passages get lost in the action.
So many dramas are a-swirl as Viola, who longs to be an actor, stuffs her long blonde locks under a hat, sticks a mustache above her lip and auditions for a play, at great personal peril. It’s illegal for women to be onstage in 1593 London, and not only could she be thrown in jail, but the presenting theater could be shuttered if her ruse comes to light.
The only actor to grasp the depth and breadth and height of Shakespeare’s poetry, she is cast in the leading role of Romeo — and all the female roles are populated by men in dresses, hilarious wigs and falsetto voices.
By virtue of the title, Galliart and Miersen are the stars of the show — and they are luminous — but so many others shine so brightly, too.
The always-brilliant Matthew James plays Shakespeare’s best friend, Christopher “Kit” Marlowe, acting as a sort of Cyrano as he feeds lines to Shakespeare under Viola’s balcony. James embodies the role with a wink and a smirk.
Rippling menacingly beneath Will and Viola’s budding romance is the fact that he is already married and she is betrothed to another. Fight director Moore thunders his way through the brutish character of Lord Wessex, who commands Viola to obey his demands in a manner befitting his future wife. She, of course, balks at every turn.
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Karle J. Meyers gives the show its best shriek as Nurse, who has become Viola’s confident as well as caregiver. When she discovers Will in Viola’s bedchamber, she is quickly drawn into the role of protector, intervening in a game of cat-and-mouse when Wessex breaks into the room to claim his carnal rights.
Naturally, this scenario won’t end well, but as all the internal dramas play out, all’s well that ends as well as possible.
• What: “Shakespeare in Love”
• Where: Theatre Cedar Rapids, 102 Third St. SE
• When: To March 24; 7:30 p.m. Friday, Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday; ASL interpreted performance March 23
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